Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford investigate the benefit system

Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford investigate benefits system: We found no scroungers and no-one living comfortably

11 Jul 2013 00:00

Nick, host of Countdown, is hoping that people will come away with a “more balanced” understanding of the benefits system



Double act: Margaret and Nick

Double act: Margaret and Nick

As Lord Alan Sugar’s original eyes and ears, Nick Hewer and Margaret Mountford made a formidable team.

Amid chaos created by the wannabe Apprentices, they were forever on hand to tell it like it really was.

Now the pair have been reunited for a TV series in which they examine Britain’s complicated benefits system.

Former PR man Nick and ex-City solicitor Margaret set out to explode the myth that benefit claimants are all cheating, lazy scroungers trying to exploit the system, by putting together four claimants and four taxpayers to examine each other’s lives.

Margaret,61, says: “The image we get from some of the media is rather distorted – that everyone on benefits has 27 children and lives in a mansion.

“Actually, very few people defraud the system and most struggle to make ends meet.

“I wasn’t aware how much money you needed in order to have a very basic – and fairly grim actually – lifestyle.

“I wasn’t aware how few jobs there are compared to the number of people who are unemployed.”

Both agreed the benefits system is over-complicated – but there is a very real need to support people.

Nick, 69, explains: “The pendulum has swung.

“Not that long ago, people were far more sympathetic and compassionate towards benefits claimants. Not any more.

“When everybody’s a bit hard up, suddenly the claimants swing into clearer focus labelled as ‘B******s, living on the state’.”

Benefits claimants take about 10% of the national £200billion welfare budget, with about 50 per cent going on pensions – which many people believe should not even be included in the figures.


Sir Alan Sugar and his two aids (left) Margaret Mountford (right) Nick Hewer

Eyes and ears: Nick and Margaret with Lord Sugar on The Apprentice


Ipswich was chosen for the ­investigation because it has an average number of unemployed people and average number of jobs available

Margaret, after visiting many individuals for the programme, found that a grand total of zero were “living ­comfortably” on benefits, adding: “We didn’t see any of that at all.”

Nick, host of Channel 4 quiz Countdown, is hoping that viewers will come away with a “more balanced” understanding of the benefits system.

“Fraud is like this,” he says as he pinches his finger and thumb together. “One per cent.

“But that’s what we read about and it makes us think that everyone’s at it. Living off the state, on the fiddle.

“If this helps people to know the truth behind some of those Daily Mail headlines, I’ll be very pleased.

“I don’t think we saw any out-and-out scroungers. Not everybody is living in a bloody mansion in Holland Park.

“If you saw the way that some people were living . . .” he trails off, thinking of some people he met who are reliant on food parcels to feed their families.

One man they encountered had gone from being a home-owning coach driver to the breadline in a matter of a few months.

After leaving his job because of illness, he found that the benefits were not enough to pay the mortgage and feed his family, so they had become reliant on charity food parcels.

Nick says: “He was desperately worried he’d lose his house because they wouldn’t be able to keep up mortgage payments.

“It showed how fragile it all is. We’re all just one step away from the gutter really.”

But he did not have sympathy for every claimant who took part in the show. Media studies graduate Liam brought out Nick’s sterner side.

He declares: “In Ipswich, media jobs aren’t exactly thick on the ground, and he wouldn’t contemplate anything else. Silly boy.

“He’s just got to get off his a**e and go and get a job and that will lead to something else.”

Nick also takes a hard line with one father called Chris, suggesting he needs to buck up his ideas and make a few more sacrifices.

“One chap wouldn’t work away during the week and return at weekends because, being a modern father, he said, ‘I want to see my children’.

“Fathers are busy changing nappies now, which is something I never did. In my day, quite a lot of people worked away.

“I did it. I worked in London and the family were in the country.”


Benefits: How much is Enough?

Probe: The duo in Ipswich for the BBC programme


But Margaret is quick to shoot him down over this, saying: “It’s much easier to make those sort of sacrifices if you are high-earning.

“Chris couldn’t afford to work for less than he was getting on benefits.”

She is critical of City women who say, ‘Of course it’s OK to have eight children and a job’, explaining: “Not everyone is a doctor or lawyer who can do lucrative part-time work and earn enough to pay for childcare.

“Some people can afford to pay for six nannies but most people are different.”

The duo discovered that many people were too scared to take on a job they weren’t sure about in case it went wrong and they were then “out” of the benefits system with nothing to live on.

And they are unanimous in their belief that the system needs a thorough overhaul to make it far less complicated.

Nick says: “It’s time for simplification. People say things like, ‘They’re terribly clever, they know how to work the system’.

“Well, you need to be to be able to work the bloody system.”

The pair found joining forces in front of the cameras without Lord Sugar looming over them was rather pleasant.

Nick admits: “It’s nice not to have Alan. When we were with him, we were support actors and he was the boss.

“But we don’t have a boss now – and that is great. No pressure.

“Alan’s a great guy, but nonetheless we were there just as advisers, to make sure the show ran on straight rails and the candidates didn’t lie.”

Having left the show four years ago to become an Egyptology student at the age of 57, Margaret says she doesn’t miss The Apprentice.

“Would I ever go back? In a word, ‘No’,” she says.

“I’ve finished the doctorate but I’m still doing research and I enjoy that very much. It’s more me than television.”

She does not even watch the BBC1 series, now in its ninth run.

But Margaret explains: “I don’t just not watch The Apprentice, I don’t watch anything. I’d rather be in the library.”

The pair’s easy banter is one of the reasons why they are such a popular double act with viewers.

Often ying to the other’s yang, they can usually weigh up arguments and offer some sort of solution in their typically no-nonsense manner.

Nick finds normally that he is the softer of the two, but when it came to the benefits investigation, it was he who took the harder line while Margaret was more sympathetic towards people’s plights.

He laughs: “I always thought Margaret was tougher than me but this programme showed she wasn’t.

“I was more critical of people, a bit harder-edged, which surprised me. I thought Margaret was normally marching alongside Gengis Khan.”

Margaret quips: “I must be mellowing in my old age.”


Nick and Margaret: We All Pay Your Benefits, tonight, BBC1, 9pm.




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Child poverty will grow thanks to spending review

 Wednesday 26 June 2013 20.34 BST

Welfare curbs ‘risk food banks and loan sharks’

Child poverty will grow under measures to make unemployment benefit claimants wait seven days before they can sign on, warn charities

A crate of groceries at a food bank
Groceries at a food bank. Charities warn that the new measures would force claimants to rely on loan sharks and food banks by extending the length of time they have to wait before receiving benefit support. Photograph: Christopher Thomond for the Guardian

Unemployment benefit claimants will have to wait seven days before they can sign on for help, as part of a series of measures designed to tighten eligibility for welfare, and to cap social security spending.

Those without jobs will also be required to prove they are already actively looking for work before registering for benefits.

The measures, presented by the chancellor, George Osborne, in the spending review, amounted to an expectation, he said, that people should do everything they could to find work.

The move would also “help people stay off benefits, and help those on benefits get back into work faster”.

But charities said that the new measures would increase child poverty, squeeze low-income working families, and force some low-income claimants to rely on loan sharks and food banks, by extending the length of time they had to wait before receiving benefit support.

Official data suggests the average wait for benefit claims to be processed is 16 days, though food banks report that in some areas claimants can wait for up to 25 days. Adding another seven days to that period would mean some claimants trying to survive a month without an income.

The Child Poverty Action Group’s chief executive, Alison Garnham, said: “The decision to delay eligibility for Job Seeker’s Allowance to seven days is a food-banks-first policy that will hurt families stuck in the low-pay-no-pay cycle, moving in and out of insecure, low-paid jobs, and it will lengthen food bank queues.”

Leslie Morphy, chief executive of the homelessness charity Crisis, said: “Our clients already have to deal with long delays before benefit claims are processed, leaving them penniless in some cases. Making people who lose their job, or are on low wages, ineligible to claim for a week on top of this will needlessly leave more people utterly destitute.”

Osborne also announced a requirement for all claimants with poor spoken English agree to improve their language skills as a condition of receiving benefits, a populist measure aimed at clamping down on alleged “benefit tourism”.

He said: “From now on, if claimants don’t speak English, they will have to attend language courses until they do. This is a reasonable requirement in this country. It will help people find work. But if you’re not prepared to learn English your benefits will be cut.”

Treasury sources said that there were 100,000 jobless foreigners who would face the threat of sanctions if they did not learn English.

But other official data suggest the supposed benefits of the measure are exaggerated. The most recent census data, published in March, shows there were only 138,000 people in England and Wales who could not speak English at all – equating to 0.3% of the population – and there no published figures for how many of those people were claiming welfare benefits.

Overall welfare spending is also to be restricted by a cap, dubbed “a limit on the nation’s credit card” by the chancellor, which will enable the government to restrict eligibility for housing benefit, tax credits and disability allowances.

But the chancellor said the cap would not include the state pension, which accounts for over half of welfare spending. This was on the grounds that it was wrong to penalise people who had worked hard all their lives. “Cutting pensions to pay for working age benefits is a choice this government is certainly not prepared to make,” Osborne added.

The overall welfare cap on the government’s annually managed expenditure (AME, or spending that cannot be planned in advance, such as debt interest) will be introduced in April 2015. It will be set as a cash limit, and if the government looks set to breach the limit, the Office for Budgetary Responsibility will issue a warning, obliging ministers to cut welfare spending or explain why it is they are going to breach the cap.

AME accounts for £157bn of spending. Although the state pension and Job Seeker’s Allowance will not be included in the cap, the government will consider whether to add additional elements of social security spending over the next few months.

Other measures announced by the chancellor include an obligation on single parents, with children aged as young as three, to actively seek work, and a “temperature test” that will block the winter fuel allowance to UK pensioners who live abroad in countries with warmer climates.

Meanwhile the Department for Work and Pensions will have its budget cut by £500m in 2015-16, a reduction of 9.5% on the 2014 total of £5.5bn. Its settlement includes £530m set aside to meet the cost of implementing welfare reform in 2015, including £300m for its flagship universal credit programme.